Walking into the Zenith Gallery’s Iris Street location in northwest Washington, D.C., can feel a little like accidentally falling down a rabbit hole and finding yourself in Wonderland. From the sidewalk, it looks like a suburban house with a mown lawn, the door left unlocked. Crossing the threshold is thus a practice in suspending disbelief. The eclectic collection of contemporary art held within dominates every room and spills into the living spaces. Everything from wooden sculptures to realistic portraits hangs from the walls, crouch on the floors and lean against the couches.

The Zenith Gallery’s recent acquisitions were presented under the title “What’s Real to You?”  This collection of oil paintings and mixed media collages by artists Davis Morton, Ron Schwerin and Gavin Sewell encourage the viewer to redefine their expectations of Realism. While Morton’s dream-like work evokes the subconscious, Schwerin channels the triviality of everyday life in his highly detailed pieces. Sewell takes a more deconstructive approach to his art, which forces the viewer to see beyond its surface-level qualities. All three artists present evocative art that reflects the chaos and complexity of modern life.

Earthy tones and deep shadows dominate Morton’s oil paintings, creating an unsettling moodiness that carries across each canvas. In spite of the darkness, there is something warming in the way Morton portrays human interactions. Notable among his oeuvre is a piece titled “Partners,” which depicts a homeless man sitting on a sidewalk with his dog. With downturned eyes and slumped shoulders, both subjects seem conquered by their circumstances. Yet, the clear affection between them lightens the otherwise disheartening scene. Their matching hoodies further lend the painting a much-needed lightness. Nuanced depictions, much like this one, are those that reaffirm our faith in the human condition.

Morton’s partial nude portraits take on an altogether different tone from his other domestic or social scenes. The two featured at the Zenith Gallery are highly sexualized images of young women that border on the offensive. Each scantily clad subject peers into a full-length mirror, making them vulnerable to the viewer from both sides. Their bodies curve and lean suggestively in ways that recall the scandal of Manet’s “Olympia.” By presenting these women in such detail, Morton sensualizes the female form to a point that seems unrealistic.

Schwerin takes a similar approach to his portraiture. His take on the female nude, however, is more traditional than Morton’s. Whereas Morton seems to be appraising the body, Schwerin captures the soul of his subjects. This is largely due to the candid quality of Schwerin’s work and his willingness to experiment with light. These same qualities are seen in Schwerin’s still-life works, which are even more striking than his portraits. The artist draws inspiration from an array of everyday objects including asparagus and glass containers. The dimensionality and accuracy of these smaller paintings make them instantly captivating in a way that the exhibition’s portraits are not.

Sewell’s work contrasts starkly with that of his peers. Using scraps of newspapers or magazines and discarded items, Sewell creates mixed media images whose complexity is part of their appeal. Prominent among them is “San Mobile Apparent,” which further explores the exhibition’s theme of female sexuality. From a distance, the piece appears to merely render a silhouette. Up close, however, it reveals an intricate web of images that call into question what constitutes humanity. Sewell’s work thus proves to be as intellectual as it is complex.

The unassuming Zenith Gallery offers a space for an eclectic group of artists under one otherwise mundane roof. “What’s Real to You?” provides an intimate look at the human form while emphasizing the connections we make with others. This exhibit was worth the trip to Iris Street if only to ogle the gallery’s varied and occasionally challenging pieces of art.

“What’s Real to You?” ran from April 20 to May 12, 2018, at the Zenith Gallery, located just south of  Silver Springs, Maryland at 1429 Iris Street NW, Washington D.C. Currently, Zenith Gallery is showing “Expressing Humanity: Historical, Spiritual & Symbolic” featuring sculptures carved from driftwood by Bernie Houston, abstract and historical paintings by Hubert Jackson and traditional Malian sculptures by Ibou N’Diaye from July 28, 2018, to September 22, 2018. Zenith Gallery is open Wednesday to Saturday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.

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